Playing for New Contracts, but Making Very Different Cases

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With a bag of popcorn in one hand and a milkshake in the other, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sept. 14 told reporters with a smirk that he would no longer discuss negotiations of his new contract. Before the start of the regular season, he and the team’s front office agreed to table talks until the next off-season.

“Respectfully, I’m really done talking about it,” Jackson said.

On Wednesday, standing at his locker at the Giants facility, quarterback Daniel Jones gave a similar response when assessing his looming contract extension.

“I don’t think it was ever really my focus to prove to people one way or the other,” Jones said. “My focus was to play as well as I thought I could play and put the team in a position to win.”

The two quarterbacks, both 25 years old and drafted a year apart, have reached the end of their rookie deals. But with Jackson’s contract talks stalled and the Giants’ declining to sign Jones to an extension, both are effectively making a case for compensation — either from their current teams or a bidder in 2023 free agency — through their play.

But when Jackson’s Ravens (3-2) visit Jones’s Giants (4-1) on Sunday, the stark difference in their arguments will be on full display. Jackson, a one-time league M.V.P., will most likely command a market-setting deal, while Jones auditions to remain on the Giants roster under a new leadership regime. Both players are being evaluated not just on how they perform in a contract year, but also on the breadth of their careers so far. And the analysis will tweak the market for what starting quarterbacks should be paid going forward.

“Their most recent play is most important, but the whole body of work is certainly a factor as well,” said Mike Tannenbaum, an ESPN analyst and the former general manager of the Jets. “You’re trying to compare how they’re playing to how you think they’re going to play.”

Jackson is representing himself without an agent and failed to reach a long-term extension with Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta before the season. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Jackson will earn $23 million in 2022, the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, a favorable discount for the Ravens.

Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, Russell Wilson of the Broncos and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys each signed recent deals with annual salaries of at least $40 million. While the annual-earnings average is a big driver of contract negotiations, guaranteed money and other bonuses are also important.

Jackson reportedly sought terms similar to those of Deshaun Watson, who in March signed a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract with the Cleveland Browns, the largest of its kind in N.F.L. history.

“Respectfully, I’m really done talking about it,” Jackson said in September of his contract negotiations with the Ravens.Credit…Kevin Richardson/The Baltimore Sun, via Associated Press

His argument for matching or surpassing the top tier of N.F.L. quarterbacks so far has been sound.

This season, Jackson’s performance is on pace to surpass his 2019 Most Valuable Player Award campaign. He ranks third in the league in passing touchdowns (12), and the players who rank ahead of him — Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (15) and the Bills’ Josh Allen (14) — earn at least $43 million annually.

Jackson has also been Baltimore’s most consistent offensive threat for a team bereft of options. His 213.4 passing-yards-per-game average is outpacing the 208.5 average he posted in 2019, despite the Ravens’ having traded their best receiver, Marquise Brown, this off-season. Jackson has relied primarily on tight end Mark Andrews and a revolving cast of running backs and leads the team in rushing yards (374).

Baltimore’s secondary has been racked with injuries for the second straight season, and the defense, which gave up the most passing yards in the N.F.L. in 2021, surrendered second-half leads in the Ravens’ two losses already this season, putting pressure on Jackson to throw the team back into games.

Jones’s contract lobbying has happened under different circumstances. Unlike Jackson, the Giants quarterback has yet to win a playoff game or be named to a Pro Bowl, and his struggles to hold onto the ball — he has committed 52 turnovers since entering the league in 2019 — have coincided with the team’s instability.

Playing for his third head coach in his four N.F.L. seasons, Jones must impress General Manager Joe Schoen and Coach Brian Daboll, both former assistants in Buffalo who helped rebuild that franchise into a Super Bowl contender.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones has completed 66.7 percent of his passes, the highest mark of his career and tied for eighth-most in the league. Credit…Steve Luciano/Associated Press

In April, they declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Jones’s contract, prompting this “prove-it” season.

He is getting an assist from running back Saquon Barkley, also in a contract year, who ranks second in the N.F.L. in rushing yards (533). Effective running has opened up play-action concepts on short and intermediate throws, high-efficiency passes that Jones is maximizing.

Jones has completed 66.7 percent of his passes, the highest mark of his career and tied for eighth-most in the league. He’s averaging six air yards per attempt, according to ESPN’s Next Gen Stats, and flinging far fewer deep balls now that the improved Giants defense under the veteran coordinator Don Martindale has kept opponents’ scoring totals manageable.

That’s also helped Jones (three turnovers this season) reverse his ball-security issues.

“I think Daniel’s done a good job with the ball,” the Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said Thursday. “I think he’s putting the ball in the right spot and he’s making good decisions.”

With a projected $61 million in cap space in 2023, the Giants could gauge potential free-agent suitors for Jones in the spring or look to find a new starter in the draft. But given how Jones has played under Daboll through five weeks, Tony Dungy, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts and a current NBC analyst, said Jones was making a case for further consideration.

“We’re seeing the best of Daniel Jones,” Dungy said.

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